Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Memories of Augusta

Our cat Augusta has been dead for two months now, but I still think about her every day. From time to time I write down memories of her. Here are some of them, in the order in which they came to me--no order at all, I guess.

Some unspeakable villain abandoned this tiny six-week-old kitten in deep snow on December 1st or 2nd, 1995, at the head of the driveway of the West Boulder Ranch, my home in Montana, where Elizabeth had only recently come to live with me. We knew that the kitten had come the whole quarter-mile down the drive because later in the day I backtracked, following her little footprint in the snow.

I had been in the tractor barn when I saw a little black animal dart behind something. I pursued it and eventually captured the terrified kitten.

The daughter of our ranch manager was visiting at the time, and she wanted to adopt her. At first we said fine. Then we learned that the little girl already had two cats, and she lived with her mother in what in Montana is known as a trailer house, and her mother did not want another cat. Thus by default the kitten became ours.

We named her Augusta in honor of P. G. Wodehouse’s priceless character Augustus (Gussie) Fink-Nottle. We thought we were going to call her Gussie, but she soon displayed a sort of dignified self-possession to which her full name seemed better suited.

I cut down a cardboard box and filled it with dirt and leaf duff for a temporary litter box, and she knew right away what it was for. When I went to the refrigerator to get some milk and to look for something for her to eat, she stood in front of it with her little stump of a tail vibrating. We now knew she had been raised in a household. Well, I say raised: When we took her to the vet for a checkup and vaccination, he estimated her age at six weeks.

The iron rule was that she would not be allowed to sleep in the bedroom. That lasted two days. We had made her a little bed, but when we moved it into the bedroom—after two nights of the most pitiful mewing—she was not interested. With great politeness she curled up at the foot of our bed, between our feet, and did not come farther toward our heads.

Her two favorite toys both came from a pet shop in Billings. The best of her life, by far, was the Anchovy Mouse, a hardish plastic cylinder with a rattle of some sort inside and covered with supposedly anchovy-scented orange and green fake fur. She adored it. Played with it for years, long after it had lost its smell. I tried and tried to find another one but never could—couldn’t even find anyone who had ever heard of such a thing.

The other was the Spider Ball, an adaptation of the Furry Spider after she had pulled off most of its black pipe-cleaner legs. I wound the legs into a fuzzy black ball that rolled well and bounced well. Hannah Hinchman told us that cats could be taught to retrieve. When Augusta was on the bed in the morning, we would throw the Spider Ball and she would chase it, and sometimes, by God, she would bring it back. With lavish praise, she began to get the idea. She never really learned to retrieve with any consistency, but then we didn’t try to teach her with any real consistency either. But she did continue to love to chase the Spider Ball, and I believe I made at least a couple of others over the years.

She liked to go outside, but she never liked the snow. I remember so well one time when she was quite little when she came back in the back door (through the kitchen bathroom) crying pitifully, with snow packed between the little black pads of her toes. We held them and melted it out.

When Elizabeth and I came back from our honeymoon in July 1996, we found to our immense dismay that our ranch manager’s idiot niece, whom we had hired to live in the house and take care of Augusta, had abandoned the job after five days and gone home to Wyoming. For the rest of the time we were away, the manager’s idiot son came over and fed her and from time to time cleaned out her litter box, but never did anything more. Six-month-old Augusta had basically been ignored for a month, left alone except to be fed. We always believed that this isolation powerfully influence her subsequent fear of strangers.

And as I look back over my appointment calendar for December 1995 and the first five months of 1996, I find that we ourselves were away a great deal. In fact we left Augusta for the first time on December 19—seventeen days after we first laid eyes on her. We left her in the care of the little girl who had wanted to keep her, in fact, in that cat-packed trailer outside of Big Timber.

We went to New York for what seems to have been a week in February 1996. We went to Mexico for a week in March. San Francisco, a week in April. New York in May. It seems we bear some responsibility for Augusta’s loneliness too.

Shame on us. And yet—we could have been worse. Many cats have suffered much worse fates. Yeah, and so have said, through the ages, jailers, sadists, freaks, pederasts, torturers....And yet: However much she may have been neglected, mayn’t she have slept through much of the time in those times—hours, days—in some confidence that we would be coming back, that she was loved, that love was the fundamental condition of her existence?—because her existence was fundamentally social and we were her society in toto. She did seem to be able to sleep through dull nothingness, like long car trips. Can we say that she could do the same in our long absences. Well, wishes are horses and beggars can ride. No?

I can say that she never knew resentment, never showed anger or peevishness on our return, only gladness: going up and down between the dining room chair legs on tiptoe, back arched, wanting to be pulled out (even if gripping the rug with her claws) and held and touched and talked to—shy, but so glad to see us.

Sometimes when we came home, especially in later years, she would wake up from sleep so deep that she would appear at the top of the stairs blinking as if coming out of a dark cave. Is that really you, at long last? And then she would find herself, get into gear, bop down the stairs, full of beans, shining gladness, herself again, Augusta. Good kitty. Happy kitty.

Sometimes she would hide behind the dining room curtains with her tail sticking out.

Sometimes she would be stuck in a closet all day and never let out a peep. When you opened the door, out she would stroll.

When I was sick or sad, she always knew, and always came to be with me on the bed. If I felt broken-hearted, her manner was especially gentle. The worse I felt, the closer she would come—even to my face.

She was always gentle. Gentleness may have been her essential quality.

Lying in the sun. How when the sun came from behind her it showed that she was in fact, secretly, a striped cat! Brown and darker brown. This always amazed me.

She did not much like being picked up until her last couple of weeks alive, but sometimes, despite herself, she would put a paw over your shoulder and let herself be carried like a baby. In early years, she would really struggle, no matter how benign your purpose.

Motel insanity. Kitty Valium in Nevada: bumping into the furniture, falling off the bed, yowling all night.

Sniffing your extended index finger as a morning greeting in bed—always almost as if it were new.

Walking the upstairs banister tra la la, no slightest worry of falling.

Rarely: locked out of the house and hollering like a banshee.

In a quiet room, the unmistakable sound of Augusta coming at a trot: bup bup bup bup.

Concomitant: She always knew the sound of either Elizabeth or me or both coming up the front steps, and always would come to greet us.

Especially when she was young, she would plunge into laundry fresh and warm from the dryer and bury herself inside. She always loved to lie in laundry even when it wasn’t warm.

In middle years, when I peed she would put her paws on the rim of the toilet and watch where the stream hit the water. When it stopped, she jumped down immediately.

When she was really licking her butt good, she would raise one back leg to a perfect vertical, as if in yoga, beautifully displaying those four little black pads.

Augusta knew when and how to look you in the eye—in what I think of as a human way, to connect, to see what you’re thinking, not the “animal” way which is a challenge: She would check to see how you were feeling, what was going on between the two of you.

Sleeping in a near-perfect circle with her head totally upside down. Even, sometimes, on the bed next to me: That was real security.

When she saw the brush in your hand, more often than not she would “assume the position.” You would say, “brushing?”—she knew the word well—and you could see her whole body relax into that sphinx posture, facing away from you, head high, ready.

Jumping up on the dining table and biting the flowers, especially if they were tulips. She didn’t want to eat them—she just wanted to annoy us slightly. It was like messing with the rubber monkey on my desk when I was working, just to bug me.

So many times, in Montana, my heart would sink when I, or we, called and called, “Augusta! Augusta! Au-gusss-taaaa...!” and she would not come, damn her. The heart-sinking was always premature, of course, because she always did come (except for the few times when she was stuck somewhere—up a cottonwood tree all night, chased into a culvert by coyotes, etc.).

At last, in the sunset light, she would come bounding, glad, and oh! I was gladder (she had no idea), in arcs over the tall grass, black arcs over the gold green, her eyes at the top of each arc calibrating all the necessary information: where I was, the house, the fence, the light, the distance, perhaps her joy, perhaps even the joy between us, the joy we shared in those moments as she came closer, closer. Those eager eyes. Augusta! Piece of shit! Do you realize how we’ve been worrying? Well, of course not.

Especially once we had moved to Bush Street, Augusta particularly liked to have company when she used her litter box. Often she would wait until both Elizabeth and I were in the kitchen, especially if she needed to poop.

There came a time in her last couple of years—it may have had to do with some change in the food we were giving her—when her shit smelled unbelievably foul. Sometimes, moreover, it was liquidy, goopy. The stench could fill the kitchen and soon the whole downstairs within minutes, and so naturally we would scoop up the poop and bag it up and get it the hell out of the house in a hurry. This embarrassed Augusta, and often then, after delivering a particularly stinky one, she would dive through her cat door, fleeing outside. I don’t think it was that she minded the smell herself—she was ashamed that it bothered us so much.

Augusta loved a sandbox freshly scooped and combed smooth. Best of all was when, roughly monthly, we threw out the old sand, washed the litter box thoroughly, and filled it deep with new, preferably unscented Arm & Hammer cat litter. She could hardly wait to get in and christen it with a big fresh poop.

She loved cereal milk—the milk left when we finished our breakfast cereal. Elizabeth believed that her particular vocalization when she knew it was coming—and she did have one—actually sounded like “milk,” and, well, it sort of did. Sometimes she would sneak onto the table and start lapping it up right there if she thought she could get away with it, and sometimes she could.

Augusta never bit anybody, except Elizabeth, and that was only for fun. Elizabeth was actually somewhat horrified, and yet she also played along, half playing, half serious. This was almost always in the morning, when Elizabeth would be wearing a robe and slippers. Augusta’s favorite targets were her ankles or, if the slippers were backless, her heels. She would follow with her tail straight up and her head already cocked sideways and her mouth partway open, ready to nip. Oh, how she loved to do it! At other times, when scolded or otherwise discouraged—sometimes Elizabeth would drop a newspaper on the floor in front of her, wham! which really did set her back—Augusta would then settle for biting the hem of Elizabeth’s robe. Never once did she try this with me, or anybody else.

Sometimes, when Elizabeth bent over her, Augusta would bite her hair.

There was a particular look on her face when she was thinking about starting a round of the biting gam . We called it, naturally, bitey. Uh oh, she’s looking bitey.

Of course she loved to hunt, especially when she was young. In Montana there were mice and voles and other little mammals, which she would often torture before finally gulping them down in two bites. In San Francisco, when we first moved to Bush Street in 1998, the basement of the house next door was infested with rats, and Augusta kept coming into our house with tiny baby ones in her mouth, very not dead. It was an unspeakably filthy place, full of rotting old furniture, broken bicycles, darkness. We soon closed it off so she couldn’t get in.

In both Montana and San Francisco there were always birds, and she loved to kill them too. She could bat a hummingbird out of the air on the fly. And would chomp it and swallow it quickly. Other birds took a little more work, and she would ultimately pull them in half before swallowing them; she never really chewed them particularly, just got them in her mouth and swallowed them down, beak, feet, feathers and all.

My favorite one was the mourning dove she brought into the house one day very much alive but firmly clamped in her mouth. It looked as if it was three-quarters as big as she was, and she held it with such grace and pride she reminded me of a retriever dog. It wasn’t long before she released the bird, and the epic chase began. She caught it repeatedly, and released it again and again. At first it was fun to watch, but after a while the poor bird was bleeding all over everything and I was seriously trying to catch it. I didn’t want to spoil her hunt altogether, but I did think that the coup de grace might just as well take place outside. In the event, I was able to catch the dove only as it was near death from shock, perched on the rim of the bathtub.

Augusta did not appreciate the interference, but politely followed her dove outside and made swift work of its dispatching. She didn't eat it.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Forward into the Past in Quest of Craig Claiborne

I've been continuing to cook my way into Craig Claiborne's mind. Amanda Hesser's new Essential New York Times Cookbook reprints a ton of his recipes, and she has done an excellent job of choosing particularly evocative ones. For some longtime Brit friends last night I did Claiborne's roast filet of beef with bordelaise sauce. Filet is generally deprecated as mushy and flavorless, but that which I got from the Golden Gate Meat Company--which really does have the best of everything--was dry-aged and firm and luscious (and organic and amazingly expensive).

For the sauce I cheated a bit by using Golden Gate's veal stock, which they make completely according to the rules. It's a very easy sauce once you've got that. You just reduce some red wine with shallots down to a goo, combine it with the stock, and reduce that slowly till it's saucy-ish. At that point it seemed a little sour and a little bitter, so I strained out the shallots, which had gotten kind of pickly; then I added a wee tad of sugar, which did the trick.

The meat cooks very fast indeed--I barely caught it at 125 in the fat end after only fifteen minutes. After a good twenty-minute rest, however, it was uniformly rosy straight through. A few tablespoons of butter gave my bordelaise the body it needed, and bingo, that was one hell of a roast beef.

Per person I served also one carrot roasted golden brown and one ratte potato roasted crisp in butter, and that austere plate looked like something that Craig would have approved.

And now I've been thinking in the opposite direction--toward a future, this one most likely altogether hypothetical because it looks as if we're not going to be cooking a Thanksgiving dinner this year and even if we were, Elizabeth would never tolerate this menu. My idea was not one of these deconstructions that are so fashionable these days but rather an extrapolation of the basic American Thanksgiving stuff into classical French dishes. Or mostly or sort of. Hence this menu, which also postulates a bunch of staff, which of course is not in the cards either:

*

Consommé de dinde aux gnocchi di ricotta, di potiron, and de truffe noire.

Salad of “sticks”—puntarelle, celery, carrot, fennel, maybe fried bucatini, all dropped haphazard on the plate like “52 pickup” and dressed with walnut oil, lime juice, and salt.

With the first two courses, Champagne.

*

Blanquette de dinde à l’ancienne, aux trompettes de la mort; sauce à la crème et à la truffe blanche.

Three purées: chestnut, turnip, and carrot.

Candied crisp-roasted cranberries.

Cornbread “crackers.”

With this, a Rhine auslese.

*

Three blue cheeses: Humboldt Fog, Roquefort, and Stilton, each with a different honey; plain bread. With a young Port or an older Sauternes.

*

Warren pear, candied huckleberries, licorice. With eau de vie de Poire.

A nice nap.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

MEMO TO WRITERS, RESTAURATEURS, CHEFS, AND WAITERS

Please, ladies and gentlemen:

1) My heroine, mentor, and sweetheart Dorothy Kalins recently told me she was making a list of certain words that need to be flushed entirely out of the food world. Mine, or a beginning of one, is below. I’m sure there are others besides the ones here, and I’d love to hear from anyone who’d like to contribute to this Hall of Shame:

über-[anything] (usually misspelled “uber-” without the umlaut)
program (e.g., “cocktail program”)
crispy (the word is crisp, people)
veggie
rustic
decadent
eponymous
[anything]-centric

2) There are also words that every person in the food world damn well ought to how to pronounce and even to spell. And yet, it seems, rather many do not know:

sommelier: In a highly regarded new restaurant in San Francisco the other night, the waiter repeated what seems to have become the egregiously widespread howler in which the word sounds like that benighted nation on the Horn of Africa. It is pronounced, in American, roughly, súmmle-yay. Not Somalia.

mascarpone: In a restaurant review in the New York Times of October 6, 2010, under the byline of the rightly renowned Sam Sifton—I must believe that this was not his but an editor’s error—the word was misspelled as it is so often so painfully mispronounced, as marscapone. Whether or not you decide to append the Italian é sound at the end, please just pay attention to the order of the consonants at the beginning: mas-car, preferably with a broad a so as not to rhyme with NASCAR.

restaurateur: There is no n in this word. If you’ve been saying it wrong all your life, it may take some practice, but you will feel a great endorphin rush when at last it becomes effortless.

granità: As the grave accent, so often missing from menus and hence from minds, makes clear, the emphasis is on the third syllable, not the second.

panino: An Italian sandwich. Two of them are panini. No matter how many of them you’re talking about, they are never paninis.

ravioli et al.: Here admittedly things get complicated. In Italian it’s a plural word, as is spaghetti. In American, however, by long usage, both have become pretty much singular. “Ravioli is one of my favorite dishes” doesn’t sound wrong to me. But “He makes these great white truffle raviolis” hurts. An American person wishing not to sound subliterate would do well to treat the word ravioli as both singular and plural according to context, and never to tack on that tacky s.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

CULINARY TIME TRAVEL

Research for my biography of Craig Claiborne, if I’m really going to have a feel for the world he knew, entails quite a bit of cooking—cooking the food that Craig knew and loved.

His tastes were wide-ranging. He was the first to bring authentic regional Italian cooking to this country: He introduced an unknown housewife named Marcella Hazan to the American public. He co-wrote (with Virginia Lee) the first American cookbook of genuine Chinese cuisine. Before Craig, the only Americans who had ever heard of the food of Sichuan were those of Chinese heritage. Vietnamese, Indian, Brazilian, and a dozen more—they were either unfamiliar or entirely unknown before Craig Claiborne wrote about them in the New York Times.

The way he did it, most of the time, would be to write features about experts raised in the particular traditions, like Marcella. They would come to his house and cook, and he would take meticulous notes. For all but his earliest years at the paper, the translation of those notes into recipes manageable in a home kitchen was mainly the work of Pierre Franey, a French chef who had been trained in the pure classic tradition but who could cook absolutely anything, and beautifully. It took Craig years of struggle to persuade the Times to give Pierre a co-byline, and even then it always read, “by Craig Claiborne [then a second line in a smaller font] with Pierre Franey.”

Because Craig was gay, a lot of people just assumed that he and Pierre were a couple, which drove Pierre and his wife and his three kids nuts. But they were a great team nonetheless, and although they enjoyed their adventures in the foods of the world, Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey considered traditional French cuisine to stand above all others.

And so that’s what I’ve been cooking. It is not easy to do. I started learning it—from Julia Volume One and the New York Times Cookbook (by C. Claiborne)—forty years ago, and I am still very far from mastering the art. But I dare say that a great many young tatted, shaved, and hardwared chefs who pride themselves on dazzling the palates of San Franciscans and New Yorkers couldn’t do a much better sole in white wine with mushrooms than...well, okay, maybe they could do it as well as I can, but they’d never try. Too boring. Too tame.

Of course they couldn’t really taste it. Their own palates have long since been bludgeoned into near-insensibility by overdoses of salt, capsaicin, and other toxins otherwise useful when modestly used.

They can throw together fried pig’s ears and peach confit, pasta with cockscombs and barely dead crustaceans, they can build towers of color, layers of ooze and crunch, shocks of habañero in smears of maple syrup, and maybe you’ll still taste whatever the dish is allegedly about—was it duck, was it fish?—but let ’em try sole with white wine and mushrooms and get it just right.

I got it just right the first time. I’m not bragging; I was lucky. Then there was the second time, to be described in due course. A dish like this is so sensitive to even the smallest errors. There is nowhere to hide. You can’t amp it up with fennel pollen and asparagus foam.

Okay, here’s the dish. For two.

I got glistening-fresh filets of petrale sole from the San Francisco Fish Company, in the Ferry Building, where they sell nothing but the sustainable and best. I had always been rather a snob about Pacific flatfish—too flabby, too soft compared to Atlantic flounders, which in turn of course can’t hold a candle to Dover or Mediterranean sole—but petrale is great if you treat it like the delicate princess it is. Never has a foodstuff been worthier of the warning Don’t Fuck It Up.

Across the aisle is the mushroom place. I bought a couple of king trumpets, which really aren’t all that different from regular white mushrooms, just prettier and a little less earthy-tasting.

The most beautiful cooking vessel I own is an oval stainless-steel-lined copper...would you call it a dish?—I don’t think it’s a casserole, it’s too shallow—with handles at each end. Elizabeth gave it to me, and I remember absolutely swooning over it. In it I cooked some fine-chopped shallots in butter and then the mushrooms, sliced fine along the vertical axis. I poured in white wine—an unoaked nowhere-near-D.O.C. French chardonnay that we get cheap but is delicious—in about the amount I was guessing would come about halfway up the fish, and boiled off the alcohol.

I let that cool all the way down and then laid in the fish. I had to add a little more wine to get the level right. Fish stock would have been better. Then you do this cool French thing of cutting a piece of wax paper to fit, buttering it, and laying it over the top. Oh, and I had put some bits of butter on top of the fish as well. Tiny sprinkle of salt, no pepper.

You bring it to just short of a boil on top of the stove and then move it—gently, gently—into a 350-degree oven. After four and a half minutes I poked it with a knife and it was already just about done, but still nice and firm. Whew.

I have a big wide spatula that I almost never need to use, but for this it was perfect: I lifted the filets onto a warm plate and covered them with foil to keep warm, and they did not break, which for me with sole, I believe, was a first. Some of the mushrooms stuck to the fish, while most of them I just poured into a saucepan along with what turned out to be a ton of juice—I mean, maybe two cups? a lot more than I expected—which I proceeded to boil down as fast as I could to two or three tablespoons. To that I added crème fraîche, maybe a quarter of a cup, and it thickened up nicely. Tasted great. I mounted it with a tablespoon of butter just for the French hell of it, and it tasted even better.

Your sole doucement, doucement onto hot plates, sauce it up, sprinkle with a few snips of chive, and praise the Lord.

Then last night I did it again, except with a couple of shrimp chopped up and added at the very end. Well, I didn’t do it again—I tried to do it again, and I Fucked It Up.

I must have cooked the mushrooms too long, first of all, because they were meaty and tough. I put the oven on 400 instead of 350 and kept the fish in for five minutes instead of 4.5, and those two factors together made it soft and fall-aparty, no resistance to the tooth at all—yucko. The wine I used—some Argentinian torrontés-chardonnay blend—must have been too harsh, and I didn’t use enough cream, and I didn’t reduce it enough either, so the sauce was both too acidic and too thin. I could have corrected that, I suppose, but I forgot to even taste it. Also I didn’t add any butter.

I mean, everything was just this close to right, but the combination of those relatively small errors made what had been a truly sublime dish kind of a mess. Not bad, really, but precisely the kind of thing that gave old-fashioned French cooking a bad name back in the day.

Sorry, Craig.

Monday, September 6, 2010

AUGUSTA'S LAST DAYS

San Francisco, Thursday, September 2, 2010. For the last week and more, our beloved fifteen-year-old cat, Augusta, has been eating less and less. She acts hungry, meows for food, but then will either take only a few bites or pass it up altogether. Her affect has been foggy, disoriented. Her eyes are not fully open and bright. She moves very slowly. And she has been losing weight quickly.

We took her to Pets Unlimited (a superb if awkwardly named veterinary hospital) at nine this this morning, to Dr. Randy Bowman, our favorite vet. She weighed 2.63 kg, or 5.8 lb., down from 7.1 lb. on July 21—only six week ago—a loss of 18 percent in six weeks. Bowman palpated her and found a hard mass in her lower abdomen. He had Elizabeth and me both feel it.

Randy then took her off to be x-rayed. It took over an hour, for some reason. Then he called us in to look at two pictures, one from the side, the other from above, both showing the mass. One possibility he had mentioned was an impacted fecal mass, but this wasn’t that. This was virtually certainly a tumor, he said. A radiologist will still be looking at the x-ray, tomorrow, and will confirm that. We could, he said, also get an ultrasound image that could further confirm that it is a tumor; but he also said that if she were his cat, he wouldn’t do it. And after all, what would be the point? The diagnosis can’t be a hundred percent confident, but everything is consistent with cancer, specifically the type most common in cats, lymphoma.

At her age, he said, surgery would be risky, and with the tumor having reached this size, the chance of success would be low. She’s going to die.

Probably pretty soon. How soon we don’t know. Meanwhile, we will see if two drugs can get her eating again and feeling better: Buprenex, a liquid to spread on her gums twice a day, for pain; and Mirtazapine every three days, an appetite stimulant. They gave her a first dose of both drugs, but while we were waiting for the prescriptions to take home, Augusta threw up white foam in her carrying case—almost certainly the Mirtazapine. So we’re going to have to give that to her again once she calms down.

It seemed as if the pain medication was making her feel somewhat better already. Perhaps it was the injection of fluids they gave her. She ate a small plateful of canteloupe and at least some regular cat food. But her affect remained dull, wan. She stayed with us awhile, then when we rose she ran away, presumably thinking we were going to put her in the box again.

She came and sniffed at her bucket bed on my desk, but didn’t stay. Elizabeth and I went out to lunch, and we don’t know where Augusta is now (1:15). The cat door is blocked, so she’s in the house somewhere, probably in Elizabeth’s closet, her latest hidey-hole.
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6:15 p.m. She remains holed up in the closet. When she sees me, she cries in a way I have never heard before. A cry of pain? A cry for help? I put out the little snacks and she comes out and sniffs at them and goes back in. I bring canteloupe and water. She comes out purring, but walking very weakly. She seems about to take a bite of caneloupe but stops, and walks about five steps toward the bedroom. Then she turns and goes back into the closet.

I’ve tried to call her downstairs to eat properly; she does not respond. Elizabeth is endlessly on the phone with a computer problem. Is Augusta dying now?

Maybe it’s just pain. It’s only two hours before she’s due for more pain medicine. I could try to give it to her, but maybe it’s all the hard handling she has endured that has made her so fearful and withdrawn, and wrestling her mouth open again would only exacerbate that. You have to rub the liquid on her gums or the inside of her cheeks.

(I have omitted that in the early afternoon I talked to the vet on the phone and he recommended going ahead with the appetite-stimulant pill. The first attempt failed: When we thought she had swallowed it, she ran away spitting it out in pieces. The second time, she did swallow it and ate a few crunchies just after. But it has obviously not worked to improve her appetite—and it is supposed to do so for three days.)
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9:25 p.m. She is dying. She looks as if it might be tonight. In any case she looks miserable. I talked to the hospital, and they’re open 24 hours, and can give her a sedative that will keep her semi-conscious for six to eight hours. If we were to decide to put her to sleep, they can do it anytime around the clock. But we’ve both checked in with her, and she still responds with purring and some evidence of gratification to schmunking and being talked to. Elizabeth thinks it best to wait till morning, and I’ve somewhat reluctantly come to agree. How after all do we know if she’s in pain?

We do know that she has not responded at all to either of the drugs. I ran to Mollie Stone’s a few minutes ago for the supposedly heroin-like and notoriously un-nutritious “white food” known as Fancy Feast Medley, and Augusta wouldn’t touch that either. I had taken her downstairs in my arms—she purred the whole way—but once there she still wouldn’t even drink water, just took a weary look and trudged back upstairs to her hidey-hole in Elizabeth’s closet. She is leaving.

I went to have a brief visit with her, and she was seemingly glad to see me, although she did not get up from her little towel bed, nor was she interested in my presentation of: canteloupe, white food, regular food, or water. Her eyes are heavy and dull (Elizabeth had just said that when she last saw her, not long before, they had been bright), but she did not make the low moan of despair or pain that has been so heart-breaking earlier. Elizabeth remarked that she is not seeking the total isolation that dying cats are commonly said to seek. My response is that she has gone beyond that, and just wants to be with us. A guess, but I think I’m right. The old saw about cats attaching to a place rather than people has never been true of Augusta.

I suppose it will be tomorrow morning that we take her to be put to sleep, and it will be a gentler and kinder death than most people ever know. The suffering will be ours, not hers.
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11 p.m. Augusta seems to be demented. Elizabeth has found that she is excited by the look and sound of the crunchies bag (what we call the cat snacks branded as Pounce); and she will come out of the hidey-hole and rub against my hand—hungrily—to get at them. Then she can’t find them on the plate with regular cat food, but when I spread them on the wood floor she does, and eats...all of two. She can be lured out a couple of times more, and takes a delusively purposeful walk of five feet toward the bedroom and then turns, purpose lost, back toward and then into the closet. She is starving herself, not even drinking water.

We have been watching the end of the movie “Babel,” which we couldn’t finish a couple of nights ago because the DVD was faulty—it’s a good film—but we haven’t been able to watch long without stopping it to talk about Augusta. We had planned first to get something from the store for dinner, and then we were going to make pesto from materials at hand, but in the end we ordered sushi in. Ordinarily the smell of the raw fish would have brought Augusta downstairs pronto, and she’d have jumped onto the coffee table to prowl rather rudely at our plates, but of course tonight she did not come.

I can hear Elizabeth down the hall talking to Augusta, and I know how much Augusta loves to hear her voice.
________________________________________

Friday, September 3, 2010, 12:15 p.m. Elizabeth spent the night in a sleeping bag outside the closet. Augusta seems to have spent the whole night inside without coming out. About 6:30, I got up, and Augusta did come out, acting hungry, and I wanted to see if she would follow me downstairs for some breakfast—and she did. I opened a fresh can of “white food,” and she ate at it enthusiastically, then quit after an intake of at most two tablespoons. She went and peed in her box and look out through the back door, which I opened, to see if she wanted to go out and take some morning sun. She didn’t, but when I returned to the chair next to her food bowls she came back and ate some more white food.

Then she went back upstairs—virtually running, at a healthy clip until the last three stairs, when she slowed way down. She went straight back into the closet. We have been able to lure her out several times, and she continues to be very interested in the Pounces package, but when you give her actual Pounces she doesn’t eat them. She did poop in her upstairs box, then went back later to cover it up, and she sharpened her claws on the rug, which I take as a sign of some vitality. She still responds to being petted, but she is not leaving her hidey-hole, and she cannot possibly be even maintaining her weight.

Elizabeth left a call on Bowman’s voicemail, and I have a list of talking points for him, as follows:

• First, report: no increase in appetite; we’ve stopped the pain medication because it seemed to make her cry and perhaps also to be more disoriented. Describe her current behavior: closet; brief engagement; liking to be petted; interest in food, sometimes a few bites, more often just a few sniffs, then back into closet. She has gone downstairs and can run upstairs easily, but even then all she does is head into the closet.

• What’s to be gained from waiting for the radiologist’s report?

• At this point, what is the percentage likelihood of a turnaround or even modest improvement? Are there other drugs—e.g., steroids (injected?)—that might give her a couple of weeks of comfort and also restore her appetite?

• Will you do the job [euthanasia] yourself?

• Will the hospital handle cremation?

We’ve decided on cremation mainly for practical reasons. If we were in Montana—and I wish we were, it seems like the right place for her, either at the old West Boulder Ranch where she grew up or at the Langston House where she has spent her last summers—then we would bury her whole body. But here there’s so little space, and who knows what sort of pipes and other obstacles I may encounter digging even a small hole? We are going to bury her ashes right next to the back stoop (“Because she’s such a stoopey!” Elizabeth said last night), along with her favorite first two toys, the anchovy mouse and the spider ball, and the toy that in various forms has been her lifelong favorite, the plain old chasing-ribbbon. We also decided to cut out and bury with her her embroidered name from “the bucket,” the doughnut-shaped bed that sits on the old kneehole desk behind my computer table. Whenever I was working, she could sleep there feeling secure, or look out the little window at birds, or just keep watch over me.
________________________________________

5:00 p.m. Elizabeth’s errands kept her away most of the afternoon. She talked to Bowman on her cell, and his answers were:

• The radiology report confirms a large solid mass consistent with a tumor. A sonogram is pointless; it would only re-confirm the same.

• An injection of steroids might give her a period of apparent improvement, but then the decline would be the same. She had actually begun losing weight three years ago, but we had begun putting prednisolone in her food, which kept her appetite up did not slow the progress of the disease. The pattern, if we gave her injected steroids now, would be the same but much faster and probably more painful because of the now greatly increased rate of tumor growth.

• Randy will do the euthanasia himself, but is booked all day tomorrow. He is willing to give up his lunch hour if that’s our decision. He doesn’t want to rush us. He will not be back till next Wednesday. Of course it doesn’t have to be done only by him, though both Elizabeth and I will feel most comfortable with him doing it.

• Cremation is done elsewhere, but the hospital takes care of it.

Meanwhile Augusta has had a somewhat decent afternoon. I’ve stayed with her constantly, mostly downstairs. She lay in the sun. She went out twice more (and had to be blocked both times from the grotty hidey-hole under the Grayson stairs). (I did inspect that, by the way: It’s not a place where she could escape from us, but it would be pretty hard, and dirty, business dragging her out, so we’ve agreed to keep her from going there.) She has eaten some hamburger, and a very few Pounces, but she is definitely not keeping up. On the other hand, lying or sitting in the sun on the kitchen rug, she did not seem like a creature who had lost all capacity for pleasure. When she moves, she does seem uncomfortable, but not in agony.

Is it too soon, because she can still have a few days of not-hellish life? Or is it time, because all that’s ahead of her is decline? We’re going to have to decide.

We made three lists to help us decide.

Things she can or will no longer do:
eat (barely)
use the cat door
get in the bucket (even with help)
do a banana
get up on loveseat and fleece
go into E’s office
play on blue paper
swat at ribbon
respond to catnip
chase anything

Things she can still do:
lie in the sun and enjoy it
enjoy petting or brushing, albeit only for a short time
come when called
use litter box, both ways
get onto the bed and come to me to be rubbed
be excited about food even when unable to eat
run upstairs, most of the way
fight hard against pills

Bad symptoms:
weight loss 18 percent since July 21 (six weeks)
wan affect
weakness
very slow movement
almost no groomy
increased startle response
no response to appetite stimulant
negative response to pain medication

We looked at her weight on our vet visit records:
9/2/10: 2.63 kg = 5.8 lb
7/21/10: 3.23 kg = 7.1 lb
4/17/09: 2.8 kg = 6.2 lb (This was when we began prednisolone)
10/7/08: 3.06 kg = 6.7 lb
12/27/07: 3.37 kg = 7.4 lb (18 percent decline in six months)
6/23/07: 4.14 kg = 9.1 lb
12/15/06: 4.14 kg = 9.1 lb
6/29/06: 4.54 kg = 10 lb
10/10/05: 10 lb
12/23/04: 9.5 lb
5/3/04: 9.25 lb
9/17/03: 10 lb
4/12/02: 9.75 lb
2/5/01: 9.75 lb

No point in drawing a graph. Clearly, something had begun happening in the second half of 2007, and we had been able to forestall the weight loss by giving her prednisolone in her food, but then in the last six weeks her weight has gone off a cliff.

We concluded that if she was better tomorrow, we would wait and see if she might start eating and feeling a little better; that if she was worse, we would go ahead and have her put to sleep that day; that if she was the same, we would have to decide then.
________________________________________

Saturday, September 4, 2010. I spent most of the night in the sleeping bag next to Augusta. She left the closet at least once, when I was asleep, to eat some of the raw hamburger and all the Pounces that had been left out and also to use the litter box in the bathroom. I went to bed about three and returned about seven. She was wide awake but showed no inclination to come out. Her posture looked uncomfortable. She did not sleep at all. She did orient towards me, and she was purring constantly—the constant purr, I have read, being either a symptom of pain or a harbinger of death. I have also read recently, online (and who knows what information online is reliable), that the purring is a self-calming, and that a cat who is terrified or in extreme pain does not do it. One writer said that it means that the cat both knows she is dying and is comfortable.

I went back to bed till eight o’clock. Then when I put on my robe, she came out and followed me readily downstairs. She acted hungry, following me to the pantry. I presented her with raw beef, fresh crunchy food, a few Pounces, and three successive kinds of canned cat food, at each of which she only sniffed. Nor did she touch her water. After sitting with me for a while, she went back upstairs.

When Elizabeth came down about half an hour later, Augusta followed. We tried milk, and two more fresh cans of cat food, and a different flavor of Pounce. She ate one Pounce. I sat on the floor, and she stayed with me again for a while, and I brushed her, which she seemed to enjoy. But her posture remained uncomfortable.

Elizabeth and I agreed that if we could get Randy Bowman to perform the euthanasia today as he had said he thought he would be able to do on his lunch hour, then today was the day.

Augusta would face only further weight loss, and further decline. It would not be long before some organ or another would fail. She seems no longer to experience pleasure beyond a few seconds of petting or brushing—and even that soon becomes bothersome, and she moves away from it. In her hidey hole, she has begun turning her face away from us.

Elizabeth has left a message on Randy’s voicemail.

I spend much of the morning lying on the floor outside the closet, just to be with Augusta. I hope it comforts her, but there’s no way to know.

11:45 a.m. An assistant has called back, and offered either 12:30 or 4:00. We choose the earlier time. She assures us that we will not have to wait in the waiting areas, where barking dogs always scare Augusta. She recommends that we arrive at 12:40, and we will be taken straight to some room.

12:15 p.m. I go again to lie on the floor next to Augusta. She is curled up well back in the closet, where it’s quite dark. She is purring much of the time. Occasionally she changes position very slowly, and, I think, painfully. Occasionally I stroke her head, and I think she likes it. She begins to lick a front paw, as though she’s going to wash her face, but then she lays her chin on the paw. From time to time she looks at me. From time to time she closes her eyes. Mostly she just stares at nothing.

These are my last minutes with her, her last minutes alive. They pass one by one by one.
________________________________________

12:40 p.m. We are shown into a room at Pets Unlimited, and Randy Bowman comes in right behind us. We put Augusta on a soft towel underlain by a pad on a table. It seems to be both an operating room and a death room—there are two cheesy paintings each of a pair of animals gazing into a sunset. Augusta is calm and no more afraid than she usually is at the vet’s. Randy explains that he will first give her an intramuscular injection that will act over the course of five to ten minutes to sedate her into unconsciousness. He administers that at 12:45, and it hurts: Augusta squirms and turns as though to try to bite him, and she makes brief eye contact with Elizabeth, but she relaxes quickly, staring straight ahead, very still. I watch her flanks moving as she breathes, and as her breath slows very slightly. As imperceptibly as the hour hand on a clock, it seems, she lowers her head to the towel. We continue to stroke her gently as she relaxes, relaxes.

12:50 p.m. Her nose is on the towel. I move her chin so she can breathe more easily. Randy checks her blink response, which is still there. Two minutes later it is not. He takes an amazingly noisy electric shaver to the front of her right front leg, making the vein there easily visible. She does not react at all to the noise, which under ordinary circumstances would have scared the shit out of her. Her eyes are open, but she is totally unconscious.

Elizabeth and I both continue to stroke and to hold Augusta. Elizabeth asks Randy to show her where to put her hand so that she can feel Augusta’s heart beating.

12:55 p.m. Randy injects a very large syringeful of barbiturates into the vein in her shaven foreleg. Her heart stops instantly. He tells us that her brain has died equally instantly.

We have read to expect several possibilities: a series of deep, searing last breaths; shuddering; urination; a release of her bowels. None of these comes to pass. She is simply utterly still.

We stay with her a few minutes. She looks exactly like herself alive. I try unsuccessfully to close her eyes. I put my fingers between her toes, something she didn’t like much when she was alive but something I alway loved the feeling of. As we leave, Randy is wrapping Augusta’s body in a towel, to take her to a freezer.
________________________________________

He has given us a brochure for a pet crematorium and cemetery in Colma, the Bay Area’s famous city of the dead. They will pick her up and return her ashes to Pets Unlimited. They have a ghoulish website offering a wide variety of urns. You cannot enlarge the pictures, nor are the prices given. You can have a pine box for free. That’s what we’re going to take.
________________________________________

She was never afraid of us. Inevitably sometimes we would step on her tail or trip over her, but that left no memory: She was never afraid we would hurt her.

Soon her places are empty, the litter boxes gone, her food bowls, the Bucket.

Even her last morning, she would come when I called her name. In my mind I can’t stop calling her name.
________________________________________

Augusta was born in Montana—abandoned in the snow —and grew up there. She has come back with us every summer since we moved to San Francisco, and always loved it. This is our last picture of her, taken this past July 29, in Elizabeth’s shadow, on the lawn of our little rented house in Melville, Montana.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

When you’re bored with Bordeaux, you’re bored with life.

(My apology to Dr. Johnson for mangling his famous encomium to London.)

“Bordeaux Loses Prestige Among Younger Wine Lovers,” went the headline in The New York Times of May 19, 2010.

The article, by the Times’s chief wine writer, Eric Asimov, said that Paul Grieco, at his oenophilic Manhattan restaurant Hearth and two serious wine bars, offers fifty wines by the glass and not one of them is a Bordeaux.

Asimov also quoted a thirty-year-old California importer saying, “I don’t know many people who like or drink Bordeaux….You’re never sure who is making the wine. I think for me and people my age, we’re going back to grower-producers—people who are there the whole way—and Bordeaux seems the opposite of that.” (The guy seemed to be quite proud of being a moron.)

“Good Bordeaux might start at $35 to $50 retail, and $85 to $100 in a restaurant, and soar from there,” wrote Asimov himself.

Which happpens to be total bullshit.

The great growths of Bordeaux do cost a lot of money, but there are dozens of small producers making splendid wines for very reasonable prices. I just looked at the web site of K&L Wines in San Francisco, and at the moment they have precisely fifty Bordeaux under fifteen dollars a bottle, and knowing K&L as I do I’ll betcha there’s not one of them that’s less than pretty good.

Some restaurateurs and sommeliers will tell you they avoid Bordeaux because they can’t afford to devote so much cellar space to wine that takes so long to mature. For most of the petits châteaux, in fact that need not be a concern: Nearly all of them are ready to drink as soon as they’re shipped. The predominant varietal in many of these lesser-known Bordeaux is merlot, but they taste nothing like the flabby, chocolatey, high-alcohol California cough syrups that have given merlot such a bad name. Even the little Bordeaux taste like Bordeaux, with soft, dusty tannins, enough cabernet for backbone, deep aromas of blackcurrant and loam, and low enough alcohol levels to bring all their complexity into balance.

(Okay, I know there are good merlots produced in California, but find me one for less than fifteen bucks.)

All this brings me to Daniel Johnnes.

Daniel has been one of my heroes for a long time—since 1985 or so, when Drew Nieporent opened a restaurant called Montrachet in a rather bleak neighborhood that had come to be known as TriBeCa (for Triangle Below Canal), and Daniel was a waiter there. The food was fantastic, the chef the then unknown David Bouley. As the name implies, Montrachet specialized in Burgundies, and they had very, very good ones, most of which, like their namesake, were very, very expensive. But knowing how much I loved red Burgundy that was true to the old tradition—pale, light on the tongue, at once delicate and intense—sometimes Daniel would find a bottle that embodied all that and also wasn’t murder on the wallet, and he would hold it aside for me.

Daniel’s story through the next twenty-five years is a rocket ride: sommelier at soon-celebrated Montrachet; wine director of Drew Nieporent’s growing collection of restaurants; Robert Parker calling him “our nation’s finest (and nicest) sommelier”; his own Burgundy importing company; magazine articles, TV appearances, a published book; making his own wines in Oregon (the Willamette Valley) and Burgundy itself (Gevrey-Chambertin); wine director for Daniel Boulud, the best chef in the United States, and Boulud’s international restaurant group; award after award.

Daniel Johnnes also puts on an annual series of dinners and tastings modeled on the venerable Paulée de Meursault, spread out across three days and nights, with a substantial piece of the proceeds going to charity. The Paulées of New York and San Francisco bring together many of the great growers of Burgundy and their wines, and for American lovers of Burgundy they are pretty much the ultimate party.

So: Mr. Burgundy. But a man who knows wine better than, well, better than just about anybody. Imagine my delight, then, when, last week, from Daniel Boulud I got an invitation to a wine-tasting dinner featuring “The ‘Other’ Bordeaux”:
While Bordeaux is known for the prestige and accompanying high prices of the classified growths, the region offers many small, quality-driven, family-owned properties along the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. Daniel Johnnes, our Wine Director, has been traveling and tasting there to seek out lesser-known, value-driven Bordeaux to feature in Daniel Boulud’s restaurants.

To celebrate their arrival, Daniel will co-host a dinner with four châteaux owners, here to share their wines and their stories. Many of them are practicing sustainable viticulture and limiting yields to emphasize quality. Removed from the glamorous world of the classified growths, these wine makers are inspired to connect with you, the wine-loving public.

DATE: Monday, September 13, 2010

TIME: 7:00 PM

LOCATION: db Bistro Moderne, 55 W. 44th St between 5th and 6th Avenues

PRICE: $135/person, all-inclusive, 4 course dinner, 11 wines

In addition to wines from our four special guests we’ll also pour selections from seven other small châteaux, 11 wines in all, paired with a late-summer four-course dinner by db Bistro Moderne’s Chef Laurent Kalkotour.

Château Beauséjour
Patricia and Pierre Bernault

Château Jean Faux
Pascal Collotte

Château La Croix Lartigue
Stephane Derenoncourt

Château Robin
Jérôme Caillé

Château De Clotte, Côtes de Castillon
Château La Coudraie, Bordeaux
Château Saint-Dominique, Puisseguin Saint-Emilion
Château De la Huste, Fronsac
Château Saint Julian, Bordeaux Supérieur
Roc de Manoir, Côtes de Castillon
Château Mondésir-Gazin, Premières Côte de Blaye
Take that, Eric Asimov and all the rest of y’all wine-by-the-glass slurpers of blackberry-jam zinfandel, vanillafied chardonnay, ink-black overextracted pinot noir, and mud-flat merlot!

The price is quite a bargain, too. I do wish I could go.

Tonight, pals Dorothy Kalins and Roger Sherman are in from New York, and we’re going to the almost-sublime Hong Kong restaurant the Mayflower, way out in the fog and chill of outer Geary. We will bring our own Alsatian riesling—there's a whole other wine story—and we shall raise a glass to Daniel Johnnes.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Glimpse of Bad Luck in the State Founded on Luck

Lovelock, Nevada, August 2, 2010.



We count our blessings.

Last Day in Montana

Saturday, July 31, 2010.

My sixty-third birthday. God damn.

Also the day we must clear out. The house is leased to someone else starting tomorrow. I have packed and mailed five boxes home, and still my ol’ M3 is heavily laden. Elizabeth has decided to drive with me to San Francisco, along with Augusta the cat.

Augusta is a Montana native, having been abandoned in the snow—How can anybody do such a thing?—in November 1995, when we were living on the West Boulder Ranch and not yet married. She grew up among coyotes and bears, stalwart, valiant, a huntress. Mice, voles, and, yes, the occasional songbird she’d bite in half and wolf down. We left the West Boulder in June of 1997 to return to city life, but we have come back to Montana every summer, always with Augusta. At fifteen, with hip dysplasia, and after so much city life, she no longer hunts, and we must fear for her even near the house, for a coyote, an eagle, an owl could make a quick snatch of her that she’d now be too slow to evade.

Owls. There are always a pair of great horned owls across the creek and downstream a bit, though we’ve never found their nest. We had not seen their young either, till a couple of days ago, when I went down to the Sweet Grass to photograph its astonishing transformation, new cottonwoods forming bulwarks that may be foundations of new islands, the logjams growing thicker with ever more débris and themselves therefore also possibly creating new land, alders sinking roots into the rocks and sand deep enough perhaps to withstand even a runoff as brutal as this year’s. The birds had nested, the babies had fledged, many had gone, and the woods were largely silent till I heard a harsh loud shriek, repeated, repeated, nearby. I climbed the bank into the grass, now rank and knotted and in places taller than me. The giant coneflowers blazed yellow in the blackening green. Many of the trees were losing their charcoaled bark, turning from black to stark white. On one scraggly, twisted little dead sapling about six feet high perched a bird much too big for it, unquestionably an owl, unquestionably a great horned because no other is so big, but with puffs of down and white feathers sticking out here and there as from a rotting old pillow, and as I took a step toward it, and another and another, the doggone bird didn’t move, just kept shrieking at me. Finally I got it: This was a baby, it didn’t want to fly, or maybe even couldn’t, Where are my mom and my dad, what am I supposed to do? They never did show, but Owl Junior did in fact know how to fly, albeit not very well, and did manage to flap his way to a proper treetop. I should never have forced him to do so. Or, okay, her.

A birthday dinner with great friends at a genuinely local steakhouse in Livingston, not one of the woefully self-conscious “fine dining” establishments that cater to tourists and newcomers with menus of ghastly, recklessly complex concoctions invariably mispronounced so egregiously by your server (insert name here) that the pain is though not new nonetheless acute; here at the Buffalo Jump you get a well grilled steak of cow or bison, a baked potato in foil or French fries, and very surprisingly excellent green beans. Martinis. We bring wine, they don’t charge corkage. A grocery store cake. A damn fine time.

Summer's Circle Closing

Tuesday, July 27, 2010.

Time is slipping away.

Elizabeth is here. The Melville postmaster, Rick Schuler, has disapproved of her working so hard, spending so much time in frenetic San Francisco, and not being in Montana; he has greeted her return—for a whole week—with a hearty welcome and a soupçon of reprobation, along the lines of We want to see more of you next summer. Linda and Glen Westervelt, who keep the store (and are therefore Rick’s sole companions for much of every day, even now in high summer), are too shy to scold Elizabeth, but they have shown concern for my solitude. Sparse on the land though the citizens of Sweet Grass County are—3600 on its 1,187,200 acres, and half of them crammed into Big Timber—they are as social as New Yorkers, and, like New Yorkers, they wonder a bit at a person who likes to be alone.

I am happy that the folks at the B.S. Corner now understand that I’m not some wacko loner, that I like to come and linger over one of Linda’s excellent burgers to hear the midday palaver of busted gears and rusted gates and cows out on the county road, and that I do still have a wife.

We go to the prairie, this time with Anita Pagliaro’s sister, Carla, a painter. We find many familiar flowers gone (these I have indicated below by showing their names in red) but quite a few new ones as well, and dammit, I have forgotten to bring pen and paper. The fact that this list exists will be explained anon.

Potentilla, a new species, prostrate, on flat shale
Aster sp., new
Allium cernuum: nodding onion—new and abundant
Shepherdia canadensis: buffaloberry—newly in bloom
some other shrub I ought to know, pretty clusters of flowers, opp. lvs.
Oxytropis splendens: showy crazyweed—this has been blooming for weeks and is now fading, but I’m just now figuring out the ID
Liatris punctata: dotted gayfeather—new; the signal flower of latening summer
Grindelia squarrosa: curlycup gumweed—acts like a weed (roadsides, bare soil) but is in fact a native
Ratibida columnifera: prairie coneflower
Erigeron pumilus: shaggy daisy
Solidago nana: low goldenrod
Potentilla diversifolia: regular old cinquefoil
Potentilla hippiana: silver cinquefoil
Oxytropis besseyi: Bessey’s crazyweed
Lupinus sp., best guess is argenteus: silvery lupine—I’ll never get these straight—in its glory now
Gaillardia aristata: blanketflower—many fewer
Eriogonum umbellatum: sulphur buckwheat, now fading to pink
Agoseris glauca: false dandelion
Anaphalis margaritacea: pearly everlasting—lasting but not really in flower
Linum perenne: flax
Penstemon eriantherus: fuzzytongue penstemon
Senecio canus: silvery groundsel
Cryptantha celosioides: miner’s candle—mostly gone
Cryptantha flavoculata: yellow-eyed cryptanth—mostly gone
Arenaria sp.: sand spurrey—mostly gone
Helianthella: little sunflower, the last few, up high
Campanula rotundifolia: harebell—the last few
Orobanche sp.: broomrape—amazing dark pink, turning to yellow as the flowers open; bright yellow center of fl.—mostly fading
mystery flower, small orange five petals, phloxlike fl., grasslike lvs.
Allium style
Phacelia linearis: threadleaf phacelia
Potentilla fruticosa: shrubby cinquefoil
Sedum sp. (lanceolatum?): yellow flower, almost orange
Erigeron compositus: cutleaf daisy
Oenothera caespitosa: gumbo evening primrose
Castilleja sessiliflora: Great Plains paintbrush—a few still there but faded
Sphaeralcea munroana: orange globemallow
Achillea millefolia: yarrow
Gilia congesta: ballhead gilia
Hymenoxys acaulis: stemless goldenweed—last few, hanging on
Eriogonum sp.: another buckwheat, cream-white sparse balls
Gaura coccinea: scarlet gaura

And TWO flowers of the day, both new, neither a true clover:

Dalea purpurea: purple prairie-clover


And Dalea candida: white prairie-clover


And as we return, heading for the same old barbed wire fence at the precisely the same place where it tore my leg open seventeen days ago, where Anita and I the next day tried and failed to recover my notepad and pen, I see from the corner of my eye a color that does not belong: lilac. Winking in the wind. It is my notepad, rained on and shredded, my one page of notes long faded to nothing, but no longer litter. Carla comes over to share my astonishment, looks down, and says, “Here’s your pen.” It is stomped flat by who knows how many cows but it still writes.

Hence the list above.

Hence the completion of the circle of summer two thousand and ten.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Summer's Sweetness on the Sweet Grass

Monday, July 19, 2010.
Praise to the common yarrow!
Achillea millefolium, beauty of wilderness meadows and trash-strewn vacant lots from American coast to coast—no, more: of the whole Northern Hemisphere. It is our floral equivalent to the robin, all-summer companion, ever-dapper, ever-cheerful, all too easily taken for granted. Our dear Lauren always makes a point of petting the first yarrow she sees, gently, as if it were a good but sensitive dog. Achilles carried it into battle to stanch his soldiers’ wounds.

The summer’s most beautiful and most fleeting flower has come and is already going: Calochortus gunnisonii, the Gunnison’s Mariposa lily, rising like a risen soul above the prairie grasses.


Other flowers new to the scene:
Cicuta douglasii: water hemlock
Heracleum lanatum: cow-parsnip
Ligusticum filicinum: fern-leaved lovage
Oenothera hookeri: Hooker’s evening-primrose
Ratibida columnifera: prairie coneflower
? Lactuca pulchella: wild lettuce? (3' h., pink dandelionlike fl.)
Monarda fistulosa: wild bergamot
Erigeron pumilus: shaggy daisy
Senecio [triangularis?]: some kinda groundsel
Rudbeckia laciniata: coneflower
Rosa woodsii: wild rose
Solidago [multiradiata? gigantea? lepida? missouriensis? nemoralis? velutina?]
Solidago nana: low goldenrod
? Viguiera multiflora: showy goldeneye?

Also a rather rare new bird: the prairie, or Richardson’s, merlin, a low-flying, unbelievably fast small falcon of vision-blurring acrobatic skill, at whose approach all the little birds panic and dive for cover. At least one of them each day must fail to find cover, for they are his entire diet.

The Sweet Grass is finally low enough to fish. On my first cast of the morning, about ten o’clock, of a little bead-head hare’s-ear nymph, I hooked and landed the biggest trout I've ever caught in this creek, a prodigious brown, twenty inches, a good pound and a half, with a great hooked jaw—the signature of an alpha male—and skin of blazing gold. He was tired, and hung panting as I held him till he had his breath back, and then shot away into the green deep.

The pool was newly scoured out by this spring’s ferocious runoff, basically the new home pool, straight across from the little one-board footbridge that takes me from the house over an irrigation ditch to the creekbed, which now looks, misleadingly, like a scene of devastation, with towering black-and-white logjams of burned and bleached cottonwood trees and limbs washed down from the 2007 fire. The logjams and all the débris they have caught have played havoc with the old channels. Just here, once the water was falling and no longer a single all-drowning sheet, there were five channels, each essentially new, braiding in and out, smashing into the jams and one another, purling back on themselves, grinding out cutbanks deeply enough to uproot tall trees, which now have fallen into the creek (their leaves still green and fluttering) to found further logjams and yet more new channels, convergences, islands, rockbars, beaches, mudflats, riffles, rapids, backwaters, standing waves, sluices, vortices. Each has its own contending voice: You turn your head this way and that and every degree of rotation composes a different chorale. The rushing shallows are hunting grounds for great blue herons, ospreys, bald eagles.

I have been trying not to think about Craig Claiborne, but it’s impossible. As though compelled by his ghost, I bought a big, gross, pimpled beef tongue, boiled it, skimmed the grotty stock, peeled the now gray and rigor-mortised upper surface and tip, carved off the tendons and unnameable attachments of the underneath. With store-bought—but organic!—beef stock and vegetables and a fresh for-the-purpose bottle I made Madeira sauce. I sliced the meat, braised the slices, didn’t like the sauce’s thin consistency, made a roux, overthickened the sauce, forgot to add the final schplup of additional Madeira, and, oh, to hell with it, voilà, langue de boeuf à la madère. I considered myself lucky, in Montana, to have found a langue-loving guest in my neighbor, fellow Greater Yellowstone Coalitionist, and longtime pal Farwell Smith, who lived in New York in the glory days of Le Pavillon, when sauces were almost as thick as the glop I put in front of him. On rice, by the way, not the mashed potatoes I had had in mind but was unable to produce owing to lack of potatoes.

Farwell kindly brought a bottle of Columbia Crest cabernet, from Washington, which tasted just right with the tongue, but Lord, Lord, why must these American wines be so goddam thick? Well, anyhow. For dessert—I don’t make desserts, especially baked ones, those are Elizabeth’s domain, but damn it, she’s not here, is she?—I attempted a clafouti aux cerises, a recipe for which had been in some online newspaper or other a couple of days ago. I was encouraged to give it a shot by the facts that 1) greatly to my surprise there is in this generally under-equipped kitchen a cherry-pitter and 2) I had some very good cherries. It’s easier than pie. You pit your cherries, you make the world’s simplest batter (flour, eggs, sugar, vanilla, milk, salt), you melt some butter and sugar in a frying pan, throw in the cherries, cook ’em a little, pour on the batter, and bake the thing brown and that’s it. Bam.

Walking in Starlight

Thursday, July 15, 2010.

Walking in starlight. How many of us have ever walked in starlight? I mean when the only light is starlight. Walked in starlight when the only sound is that of the rushing of water? Oh, this stillness, this brightness and dark. I thought I saw the moon aching to rise but midnight came and that bulge of glimmer at the eastern horizon was unchanged (a faraway ranch light, presumably; later I looked up the time of moonrise, and it had been in the late afternoon). The Milky Way was an arc southeast to northwest. The stars blurred only slightly at the sunset edge to the west—still that strong at eleven o’clock! Otherwise they were pure unfaded velvet-and-spangle curtain to the black edge of the earth. A silver one hung above the southern slope of Porcupine Butte. A golden one rose above the prairie.

And why must the moron neighbor upstream flood his world with a spotlight of at least 200 watts?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Faith and Redemption on the Restigouche River and on the Montana Prairie

Monday, July 12, 2010.

O what a nasty noose we wind / when we contrive to fall behind.

I was invited to go salmon fishing in Canada, see. On the Restigouche, said to be the best Atlantic salmon river in North America. The water was low and the fishing slow, but it was grand—good friends, splendid landscape, an old fishing culture, fine local people. Real maritime weather: The river forms the boundary between Quebec and New Brunswick, and debouches into the Bay of Chaleur, a place of fog, slant needle rain on upriver winds, a century, two centuries of conflict between francophones and anglophones, between the French- and English-speaking whites and the Micmac Indians.

It is a big river—the name means five rivers, and each of those fingers of its hand is prodigious—and the whole watershed has been ruined several times, by clearcutting and siltation, by horse-drawn scows dragged across the spawning beds, by Micmac gill-netting; yet magnificently, again and again, it has recovered. But will it survive climate change? high-tech factory ships on the deep-water feeding grounds off Greenland? I skimmed a book copyrighted 1852 predicting the imminent collapse of the Restigouche salmon fishery. It’s always comforting to find a text or metaphor for hope, however false the premise.

—The psychologist Martin Seligman has repeatedly shown that optimism gets results even on pretty flimsy predicates. Baseball teams win, marriages thrive, and of course religions prosper on faith. I vividly remember my friend the wonderfully named Episcopal priest Donald Goodness telling me that the most absurd, most unbelievable tenets of Christian doctrine—Moses parting the sea, the virgin birth, the miracles, the resurrection—were precisely those which had endowed the church with its durability, because they force the believer to abandon reason, to take leave of all that is verifiable, to hope for life in the face of undeniable, stinking, grinning death. Otherwise, what? We give up? I’d rather believe that the salmon will go on returning to the Restigouche.

The day before yesterday I finally hauled my ass out of the house—it seemed to have taken me some days to figure out that I was back in Montana for real—and went for my accustomed walk out onto the prairie. The godwits and curlews were gone—no, there was one pair of curlews, whirling and calling, not near. The only scolding nesters left were the upland sandpipers, burbling a protest feeble in contrast to that of their brawny oceanic cousins. And of course the flora had changed utterly in the two weeks since I had walked this land. The death-camas had all gone to seed, the little sunflowers, Helianthella, had disappeared, cheer-bright larkspur gone. But the grasses were tall and green, the summer ripening.

As I crossed a pasture full of what seemed to be contented cows and calves, I felt a presence behind. I turned to see a black cow pacing along, definitely following me. “Hey,” I told her, “wrong-o. You don’t want to follow me. Go away.” I waved my arms a bit and strode on, but I felt her still there. When I turned again, she was quite a bit closer. “Really,” I said, “this is too much. Get the hell away from me. What do you think you’re doing?” I mean, this was only a cow. In reply to my command she blew hard through her nostrils and started slamming the turf with a front hoof, hard enough to blast great chunks of sod loose and raise clouds of dust—quite the cartoon image, one might say, but her mien was entirely serious and so I took her to be. I looked around for my options. The nearest tree was about half a mile away and across a couple of barbed-wire fences. I also had no idea whether I could outrun a cow; I sort of doubted it. I figured I might just have to stand my ground and throw my daypack in her face if she really came charging. I looked forward again, along my originally intended line of travel, and this time I saw the problem: a black hump in the grass: her calf: dead. I was standing precisely between her and it. Oh.

It was, as Bertie Wooster likes to say, with me the work of a moment to change my bearing by ninety degrees and quietly, somehow without making a fuss, skedaddle, which also conveniently headed me toward a low ridge behind which I could take myself out of mother’s sight. Indeed, as soon as I was no longer blocking her access to her late baby, she was no longer in a mood to trample me into the dirt. I sprang eagerly over a place in the fence I could stretch low enough to do so, and made my way up into the wilder, cow-free reaches of the butte. In the shade of a limber pine, looking out across a hundred miles of Montana to the still snow-blanketed Beartooths, I had some lunch and collated my flower notes from the walk up:

Potentilla diversifolia: regular old cinquefoil
Potentilla hippiana: silver cinquefoil
Oxytropis besseyi: Bessey’s crazyweed (I think)
Lupinus sp.: I'll never get these straight
Gaillardia aristata
Eriogonum umbellatum: sulphur buckwheat
Phacelia franklinii
Agoseris glauca: false dandelion
Anaphalis margaritacea: pearly everlasting
Linum perenne: flax
Penstemon eriantherus: fuzzytongue penstemon
Senecio canus: silvery groundsel
Cryptantha celosioides: miner’s candle
Cryptantha flavoculata: yellow-eyed cryptanth
Arenaria sp.: sand spurrey
Helianthella: little sunflower, the last few, up high
Campanula rotundifolia: harebell
Orobanche sp.: broomrape—amazing dark pink, turning to yellow as the flowers open; bright yellow center of fl.
mystery flower, small orange five petals, phloxlike fl., grasslike lvs.
Allium style
Phacelia linearis: threadleaf phacelia
Potentilla fruticosa: shrubby cinquefoil
Sedum sp. (lanceolatum?): yellow flower, almost orange
Erigeron compositus: cutleaf daisy
Oenothera caespitosa: gumbo evening primrose
Castilleja sessiliflora: Great Plains paintbrush
Sphaeralcea coccinea: scarlet globemallow
Achillea millefolia: yarrow
Gilia congesta: ballhead gilia
Solidago sp.: goldenrod
Hymenoxys acaulis: stemless goldenweed—last few, hanging on
Eriogonum sp.: cream-white sparse balls
Gaura coccinea: scarlet gaura

The way home was through the goddam pasture with the goddam dead calf and the goddam mad cow. But before I ever had to face that music, as I swung my left, trailing leg over the same barbed wire I had crossed on the way up and which now I thought, without thinking, I had pushed down far enough, a barb caught my pants and, yes, my leg, tearing into both. I lost my balance altogether and fell headlong into the pasture, like—again a Bertie Wooster phrase comes to mind—the delivery of a ton of coals. I hit the ground hard. Nice hard rocks, too. Wrenched my back, cut my elbow in several spots. I sat up dizzily and had a look at myself and thought, Golly, this could have been an awful lot worse. For one thing, I was at least two or three miles from the nearest anything like another person, and I might very well have broken an arm, maybe a leg, I might have ripped open the vein that ran one inch away from my deepish puncture and cut. I was glad I had my trusty little first aid kit. I swabbed out the cut with a sterile wet-pad, and more or less stanched the bleeding with a couple of good tight bandaids, and started limping homeward, feeling like a moron. Once again—how many times have I had to say this to myself?—Why can you not keep in mind the simple maxim Be Here Now?

At first I thought the dead calf had been miraculously resurrected, but in fact it was still there, just not visible from uphill, and its mother had apparently finished mourning and returned to the sodality of the herd. So on I trudged. Halfway home, I realized that I had dropped my notepad and pen as I fell and had left them behind, that’s how rattled I was.

Once back in the land of indoor plumbing, I washed holy hell out of my cut, four or five times with soap and water, pulling it apart to get all the gradu out, and then went after it with alcohol, and then pulled it together with fresher bigger bandaids, and then went online to find out about barbed wire cuts. Mayo Clinic said if you haven’t had a tetanus shot in ten years, you should get one. But mightn’t I weasel past that somehow? For one thing, no way could I remember back ten years, and maybe I’d had one, what with my horse accidents and whatnot. I figured that if anywhere would let me tough it on through like a True Cow Boy, it would be the Pioneer Medical Center in Big Timber. I called. The nurse there informed me that tetanus lurks in the soils hereabouts and I ought to take it seriously. Online again, just to triangulate. A few highlights from health.google.com:
Tetanus is infection of the nervous system with the potentially deadly bacteri[um] Clostridium tetani.

Tetanus often begins with mild spasms in the jaw muscles (lockjaw). The spasms can also affect the chest, neck, back, and abdominal muscles....Sometimes the spasms affect muscles that help with breathing....Prolonged muscular action causes sudden, powerful, and painful contractions of muscle groups....These episodes can cause fractures and muscle tears.

Other symptoms include:

* Drooling
* Excessive sweating
* Fever
* Hand or foot spasms
* Irritability
* Swallowing difficulty
* Uncontrolled urination or defecation
I was damn well going to get the shot. The P.M.C. was on my way to Livingston anyhow. I was going to dinner at my dear friend Anita Pagliaro’s, where I was also going to see beloved Doug and Andrea Peacock for the first time since last summer. The Big Timber emergency room is a pretty calm outfit. I got my shot, which didn’t hurt worth a durn, and drove on to Anita’s, the coolest house in Livingston, in fact one of the coolest in the known universe. See www.anitapagliaro.com and click on bungalow and see how cool.

The loss of that notepad kept bugging me. I had stuffed all my notes in my pocket except the last page, but I hated the picture of my lilac-colored litter fluttering across that untrammeled landscape. In any case Anita wanted to see the place, so she came over next morning, and out we strolled. We did not find notepad or pen. We did see the dead calf, but the mom didn’t seem to take notice of us. As we headed home after a fine lunch of egg salad sandwiches on supermarket bread, honest fresh cherries, and Fig Newtons (not the Paul Newman organic ones, which are greatly inferior to the originals, thank you very much), we came across another heap of calf, this one alive. Barely. It lifted its head, gave us a pitiful look, and wearily laid its head back down. This poor creature was far from any occupied pasture, and the one below was much too well fenced—my leg could tell you about that—for this little guy to have jumped out. A mystery.

I called my landlord, rancher Paul, to report, but he wasn’t home. He hadn’t, in fact, been home for some days, since I’d had various other ranch news to call in, such as the dead calf. Oh, and another mortality, that of a cow about the size of a UPS truck whom I had come across a couple of days earlier, rotting away by the side of a ranch road, the cynosure of half the raven population of Montana, her empty eye sockets boiling with maggots.

Anita had an appointment in the Paradise Valley, and I had some spareribs to heat up, as well as more Gravity’s Rainbow to crawl a little farther toward the still-distant end of. I had read it before, in 1972, when it was new, and it is just as impenetrably strange and gripping and impossibly unreadable yet unputdownable now as it was then. I’ve been reading the sucker for two months.

That brings us to this morning, 7:45. Paul pulls up outside my house, I go out, he asks if I wouldn’t mind showing him where the sick calf is. We head out in true rancher style, jouncing across the prairie on Paul’s indefatigable four-wheel-drive steed. Every God-damned wire gate that I have so assiduously crafted a (walking) route to avoid, I, as Mr. Shotgun, now have to open and, in mortal fear of another barbed-wire gash, then to stretch closed.

We stop off to visit the dead calf on the way up. Paul asks if I remember the number of the freeze-brand on the mother’s side. “Oh, sure, Paul,” I say. His thought is that if we can identify the mom, he might be able to get her to adopt the sick calf once we find it. His next move is to start kicking the dead calf around in the hope that that will attract the interest of the mother cow. Indeed one comes trotting. “See how tight her bag is?” Paul points out—the full udder of a mother who hasn’t been nursing. But then comes another cow, with another more or less tight bag. Then another. Within a few minutes we have about twenty cows all sniffing at the dead calf. “To hell with it,” says Paul. “Maybe we can do something on the way back.”

We grind on up the butte, steeper and potholier as we ascend. In due course we arrive at the place where Anita and I saw the sick calf. There is no calf. Paul and I start prowling on foot, and it isn’t long before I hear him hollering for me across the coulee, and there, sure enough, in a stand of limber pines, is the calf, grazing. Skinny, but not looking three-quarters dead anymore.

We mount back into the pickup, Paul plunges it straight into and out of the coulee—scaring the shit out of his passenger—and then we make a wide circle uphill from the calf. Paul thinks he has some rope behind the seat. I find a piece about seven feet long that looks like clothesline. He knots it into a semblance of a lasso.

Tom chortles; Paul shrugs. “It’s all I’ve got,” he says. “What I’m hoping is he’s weak enough he’ll just let me walk up to him and drop this loop around his neck. He’s got to be part of the herd that was up here three or four weeks ago. We thought he was lost, gone. I can’t believe he’s still alive.”

One very short, very quiet step at a time, Paul creeps closer and closer up behind the calf. With each step he takes, the calf takes one step away, but inch by inch Paul is gaining. When at last he is perhaps two feet behind, the calf bolts—pretty doggone zippily, too, for an animal supposedly at death’s door. Next thing I know, Paul is diving through the air, and with one extended hand has grabbed the tippy-tip of the animal’s tail.

Very quickly he goes hand over hand up the tail, and then in a blur he has gripped a leg, tipped the calf sideways, dumped it on the ground, and is sitting on top of it whipping his little length of rope, or clothesline, around its ankles. Just like in the rodeo.

The awesomest passage of this rodeo-cowboy scene is when right in the middle of the furious action Paul’s hat comes off and he pauses in his calf-tying-up to reach casually across the grass and put it back on. (I hasten to add that this is not a Cowboy Hat. Those are for official rodeos, in town. Ranchers at work wear regular old billed caps with labels on the front like half of everybody else in America.) Within a minute he has picked that scrawny little critter up like an attaché case and dumped it into the bed of the pickup.

“What would have happened it you’d missed?” I inquire.

“I damn near did,” he says. “We’d have had to chase him till he got tired enough to catch.” I look around: coulees, rimrock, scree, rock, down timber, badger holes. Nice place for a picnic with Anita and Fig Newtons, but broken, nasty country to be trying to run on. “We’d do it like coyotes. You’d run him awhile, then I’d run him.”

“Sounds like it might have taken some time.”

“Oh, yes,” says Paul.

“How close did you come to missing grabbing him by the tail?”

“Close.”

I feel like the girl in a silent melodrama: Oh, Paul! My hero! Also I’m thinking back to when I got in the truck about an hour and a half ago. The idea, as I recall it, was that I was going to show him where the sick calf had been. There wasn’t anything in the contract about chasing animals all over Porcupine Butte all morning at the risk of limb and life.

Never mind. All is well. My hero!

Ahem. The clear-eyed fact to be remembered, shoving poetic license aside, is that this was not primarily a precious life saved; for it is a life not long to be lived; what will have been saved, come a year, is a good thousand dollars’ worth of beef.

On the way back, Paul even got one of the moms to come alone to the dead calf. She did not seem inclined to murder him. Must have been his Air of Quiet Authority. He wrote down her number and said that from here on out it was going to be up to his brother-in-law to come get her and put her in the barn with her new stepson; she was his cow. I then learned that one of the ways you encourage a reluctant foster mother is to skin the dead calf and make a sort of sweater out of the cape, with four holes for the legs of the adoptee, so that he’ll smell like a blood relation.

I am so glad I am not a rancher.

A Bluebird Day on the Prairie

Wednesday, June 23, 2010.

A morning stroll, a bluebird day on the prairie. Cows have been moved in, still pregnant—Paul is calving even later this year. For the last three years, he has been keeping calves of the year through the winter and selling them as yearlings. A nearly essential element of Montana ranching lore is the bitter-cold middle-of-the-night February calving: Our ranch manager on the West Boulder had built a little sled on which he could pull a half-frozen newborn from some distant pasture to the warmth of a barn. June and July calving abolishes that, and I say bravo.

Modest changes to the flora. The death-camas is the most abundant I’ve ever seen it, and taller than I’ve ever seen it. Most of the helianthella, the little sunflower, is gone, as is the sweetvetch. Newly in bloom:

Potentilla diversifolia: varileaf cinquefoil
Potentilla fruticosa: shrubby cinquefoil
Sedum lanceolatum: lanceleaf stonecrop
Castilleja sp.: Indian paintbrush, dark pink with yellow-tipped petals
Gaillardia aristata: blanketflower (only a single flower)
Orobanche fasciculata: clustered broomrape
Phacelia linearis: threadleaf phacelia

The godwits and curlews are much more abundant, thank God, though not nearly so plentiful as last year. They are as outraged as ever by my presence in their nesting habitat. The godwits in particular are almost scary, flying straight at me at high speed and shrieking, only to veer off about twenty feet out. I love these birds.

Along a pasture fence, a pair of very blond coyotes were sniffing eagerly at something. They ran away as soon as they saw me, of course, and what the object of their interest was turned out to be one of the grossest sights I’ve ever seen—a cow placenta, so fresh it was practically breathing; bloody, glistening, big.

There was a buck antelope coughing chuff chuff at me on a rise, with his little herd of three does. Then as I dropped into a coulee I almost jumped out of my skin, so loud was the roary bark of what must have been another antelope, very close. I climbed quickly to the point of a steep moraine and could see for a good mile—and not a tree—and no antelope. I don’t know how they do this, but they do it. Maybe they find these little folds in the landscape that somehow they know keep them below most observers’—in particular, predators’—possible sightlines?

High, high above the butte, an eagle. That bird at that moment could doubtless see several hundred antelope here and there across the prairie, including many fawns; but would never dare trying to snatch even the newest-born: Not only the strutting, shiftless males have horns; the moms can use theirs to deadly effect.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Nature Boy and (part-time) Nature Girl

Sunday, June 13, 2010.

A walk across the prairie and up the lower slopes of Porcupine Butte. The shorebirds—long-billed curlew, marbled godwit, upland sandpiper—seem to be many fewer this year. Or are they just later? Other birds are still arriving, the latest being eastern kingbirds and nighthawks, both of which have just shown up in the last couple of days.

Flowers were many:

Cerastium arvense: field chickweed
Zigadenus venenosus: death-camas
Allium textile: textile onion
Phlox sp.
Linum perenne: flax
Delphinium bicolor: low larkspur
Astragalus drummondii: Drummond’s sweetvetch
Helianthella uniflora: little sunflower
Tetraneura acaulis a.k.a. Hymenoxys acaulis: stemless sunflower
Antennaria neglecta: field pussytoes
Gaillardia aristata: blanketflower (not really quite blooming yet)
Penstemon eriantherus: hairy penstemon
Lupinus (sericeus?): some damn lupine, you tell me
Phacelia franklinii: Franklin’s phacelia
Hymenoxys acaulis: stemless sunflower
Cryptantha celosioides: miner’s candle
Oenothera caespitosa: gumbo evening-primrose
Draba sp.: cushion draba
Draba sp.: taller
Leucocrinum montanum: sand lily
Erysimum asperum: wallflower
Cryptantha interrupta: bristly cryptantha
Senecio canus: silvery groundsel
Prunus virginiana: chokecherry
Balsamorhiza sagittata: arrowleaf balsamroot
Erigeron speciosus: showy fleabane
Erigeron compositus: cutleaf daisy
Lomatium cous: cous biscuitroot
Lithospermum ruderale: western gromwell
Geranium viscosissimum: sticky geranium
Ribes sp.: some gooseberry
Viola nuttallii: Nuttall’s violet

I made it to what I considered the last reasonably achievable rimrock, getting on top of which involved a very steep stairstep cowpath defile between cliff faces (behind Elizabeth, I should add)—and worth the effort, for the sensational view of the Absarokas, the Beartooths, the Belts, the Snowies, the prairie; and, to me most rewarding, just underfoot, the young and vigorous limber pines amid the many old ones killed by blister rust, as well as a few just-starting Douglas-firs.

Elizabeth wanted to climb around the next bend, scouting for a possible way to the top for our next venture up this way (a route I consider, on the basis of the topo map, impossible), and she came upon a…bear! A dark one, possibly one of the two we saw on the grassy, open, easy northern slope of the butte last year (the right and only way to the top, in my opinion).

Porcupine Butte does not seem like proper habitat for Ursus americanus. There’s not enough forest, and black bears are forest bears. Well, aren’t they? And what about connectivity? If they’re going to reproduce, they’ve got to be in touch with the larger population—which would mean, at a minimum, the Crazies, which I imagine support not very many bears. It probably also means some genetic linkage to the Cayuse Hills to the south and beyond them the Beartooths and the Absarokas and therefore the whole Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. And it’s possible that there’s a link to the north as well: If they can make it across the grasslands to the Belts, then there’s a reasonable chance that there’s gene flow all the way up, to the northern limit of black bears in Alaska. And the ranchland north of here is mighty lonesome country.

So: proper habitat? What makes this possible is not so much forest as peace and quiet. The amazingly low human density around here allows Porcupine Butte’s few (two?) bears to stroll across ranches by night, maybe even to travel up and down stream corridors at dawn and dusk, and thereby to remain part of the metapopulation of the northern Rockies. Wow.

And of course the butte itself offers an abundance of bear food—grass, forbs, roots, bugs, rodents, carrion—that is available to them only because of the nearly total lack of disturbance by humans. They walk around in the open in the middle of the day, as Elizabeth’s encounter shows. That bear, by the way, was not in the least freaked out. It had a look at her and just ambled off. No panicky run for the trees.

As we came back across the prairie, where the grass thanks to the rains seems to have grown a good foot in the last week, we saw a brown something moving in the green, and then a pair of little muley ears: It was an infant mule deer fawn, commanded by its mother to lie down flat but too new at the game to know that when hiding it is best to include the ears. She herself was entirely invisible—ears flattened—though certainly nearby.

I then proceeded to ruin a perfectly good organic and local pork shoulder steak. I thought, Well, shoulder, it needs some cooking, so first I tried to braise it in some weird organic barbecue sauce I’d bought at the Bozeman Co-op, with vinegar, but it smelled so bad once heated that I threw it out, rinsed off the pork, and began again with white wine; and the longer I cooked it, the stiffer it got. After an hour and half, starving, we (“we”) gave up. I threw it on the grill, as I had always planned to do at the end, and though this hardly seemed possible, it got stiffer and drier yet. I also had cooked collard greens, and overdosed them with both garlic and vinegar to such an extent that they were downright repulsive.

Elizabeth had gathered many morels, however, the day before, and, richly buttered, they saved our dinner from utter uneatableness.


Tuesday, June 15, 2010.

And Elizabeth is already gone, back to venture capital and software. I'm quiet, I'm lonely.

One of my least favorite painters, at his worst, painted clouds like these, ranks of edgeless gray smudges across the azure night sky, El Greco. For once an evidence in nature of whatever it was he saw in his lost-in-labyrinths out-in-the-out-there-too-long San-Geronimo mind.


Thursday, June 17, 2010.

O a blessing, a benison! At what I call in my mind now Antelope Pass, not a pass at all but just an up-wedged shale-bed and its companion moraine over which one comes for the last mile to this place and where there are nearly always a particularly imperial pronghorn buck and his varying harem of does and now fawns: Not thirty feet up, white wings beating, long necks outstretched, unimaginable in these parts anymore but unmistakable, and magnificent, a pair of trumpeter swans! The biggest birds, by weight, in North America, and not long ago nearly lost to toxins and slaughter. They must be nesting on one of the glacial pothole lakes up towards Two Dot.

This, this is why we come here, and stay, and watch, and are so deeply grateful.


Sunday, June 20, 2010.

Imagine my delight at finding one of these in the kitchen sink this morning:






Very tiny:




And moving very slowly. Naturally I took it to be one of Satan's favorite tick species.

In fact it is a pseudoscorpion. Which is not an insect, not a tick, not a spider. It is an arachnid, but not a spider. It is a member of an order all its own, the Pseudoscorpiones. There are more than 400 genera of pseudscorpions, comprising some 3300-odd species, with more being discovered all the time. They live all over the world, and all of them are entirely harmless.

That fact is by now moot, of course, because I killed the little motherfucker on sight.


Evening: a slow-rolling storm in the deep-bass timbre of Hendrick Hudson and his crew bowling ninepins in Rip van Winkle’s Catskills sky: Wouldn’t you think it would be hard for bats to fly in such a steady dense rain, with those leathern wings? Well, they do it